Stories

When climate, economics and the legacies of war conspire in Central America, Santa Clara leverages action research partnerships to propose creative responses

Assistant professor of environmental studies and sciences Christopher Bacon received a $272,555 grant from the National Science Foundation to develop an integrated assessment of smallholders’ food and water insecurity in Central America, focusing on the coffee-growing regions of northern Nicaragua. The findings will inform global efforts to link climate adaption and disaster risk reduction with sustainable development, and have particular relevance for Latin American producers as well as the coffee industry in the United States. A key feature of this project involves the participation of at least ten undergraduate students to gain on-the-ground research experience in Nicaragua over the next three years, half of whom will self-identify as Hispanic or Latino.

While Nicaragua continues its slow recovery from decades of violent conflict, it must also contend with a challenging mix of conditions that include a rapidly-spreading coffee pathogen (coffee leaf rust), an unrelenting drought, and sharp increases in the price of several food staples — all threatening a humanitarian crisis affecting millions of people. Leveraging Santa Clara’s breadth of expertise and collaborative strengths, Bacon will meet this multifaceted challenge with a diverse team that includes professor of Economics William A. Sundstrom, associate professor of Environmental Studies and Sciences Iris Stewart-Frey, and professor of Civil Engineering Ed Maurer. The team will work in partnership with local farmers, organizations and communities to collect data from household-level surveys and interviews, from governmental and non-governmental organizations (including the Community Agroecology Network and the Asociación para el Desarrollo Social de Nicaragua [Association for the Social Development of Nicaragua, ASDENIC], from biophysical measurements, GIS (Geographic Information Systems) mapping and analysis and climate modeling. Through a multidimensional analysis of this rich data set, the team will combine qualitative results and regression models to understand which strategies work and which ones could lead farmers deeper into cycles of poverty and environmental degradation. “I value this team’s collaboration because together we will form an interdisciplinary effort that is greater than the sum of our parts. We will generate new knowledge and methods as we identify which responses could work for different circumstances and partner with rural communities and their allies to bounce back better than before,” says Bacon.

Underscoring the experiential and intercultural value of this opportunity, Bacon welcomes student participation because “students bring fresh ideas and a positive attitude into this process; and it is also amazing to see how the students interpret these experiences into their future career trajectories when they return home.” In the summer of 2015, the Miller Center provided a grant for two graduating seniors to join Bacon in Nicaragua as part of a related pilot project focused on food security, water access and adaptation to climate change. “It’s crazy to think that one day I was drinking coffee in the Learning Commons at SCU to make it through final exams, and a few weeks later, I was in Estelí, meeting the Nicaraguan farmers who grew the coffee beans. It really brings things into perspective; even small actions and efforts make a difference,” says Alexandra Cabral ’15, an Economics major with a minor in Environmental Science. Morgan Cowick ’15, an Environmental Science major, had a similar experience: “I wasn’t sure what to expect from such a unique research trip like this. I came to appreciate how valuable it is to be immersed in the context of the work you are doing. There are certain things you just aren’t able to understand when you’re confined to computer research. I think our collaboration with the coffee farmers and community members was vital to enhancing my fundamental understanding of the work we were doing, and of its implications for the communities in which we worked.”

In the near future, Bacon will use part of the grant funding to develop a collaboration with the LEAD Scholars Program (for first-generation college students at Santa Clara) and the Honors Program, as he creates additional opportunities for students who have been historically underrepresented in the conduct of original scientific research and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) learning opportunities. And, while Bacon trains his students to conduct social science field research skills, he will partner with colleagues from other disciplines to help train students in the relevant areas, such as geographic information system (GIS) mapping, climate modeling and quantitative analysis.

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